Articles | Volume 16, issue 11
Research article
26 Nov 2012
Research article |  | 26 Nov 2012

Exploring the physical controls of regional patterns of flow duration curves – Part 3: A catchment classification system based on regime curve indicators

E. Coopersmith, M. A. Yaeger, S. Ye, L. Cheng, and M. Sivapalan

Abstract. Predictions of hydrological responses in ungauged catchments can benefit from a classification scheme that can organize and pool together catchments that exhibit a level of hydrologic similarity, especially similarity in some key variable or signature of interest. Since catchments are complex systems with a level of self-organization arising from co-evolution of climate and landscape properties, including vegetation, there is much to be gained from developing a classification system based on a comparative study of a population of catchments across climatic and landscape gradients. The focus of this paper is on climate seasonality and seasonal runoff regime, as characterized by the ensemble mean of within-year variation of climate and runoff. The work on regime behavior is part of an overall study of the physical controls on regional patterns of flow duration curves (FDCs), motivated by the fact that regime behavior leaves a major imprint upon the shape of FDCs, especially the slope of the FDCs. As an exercise in comparative hydrology, the paper seeks to assess the regime behavior of 428 catchments from the MOPEX database simultaneously, classifying and regionalizing them into homogeneous or hydrologically similar groups. A decision tree is developed on the basis of a metric chosen to characterize similarity of regime behavior, using a variant of the Iterative Dichotomiser 3 (ID3) algorithm to form a classification tree and associated catchment classes. In this way, several classes of catchments are distinguished, in which the connection between the five catchments' regime behavior and climate and catchment properties becomes clearer. Only four similarity indices are entered into the algorithm, all of which are obtained from smoothed daily regime curves of climatic variables and runoff. Results demonstrate that climate seasonality plays the most significant role in the classification of US catchments, with rainfall timing and climatic aridity index playing somewhat secondary roles in the organization of the catchments. In spite of the tremendous heterogeneity of climate, topography, and runoff behavior across the continental United States, 331 of the 428 catchments studied are seen to fall into only six dominant classes.